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Food Irradiation: The Untold Story

The Food That Would Last Forever by Gary Gibbs, Avery 1993

Imagine, if you will, the future as envisioned by the budding food irradiation industry. American families will sit down to a dinner where the bread, meat, fruit, and vegetables before them have been preserved by exposing them to nuclear radiation. The molecular structure of this food has been changed in ways that scientists are in serious disagreement as to whether human health will be harmed. At the very least, the vitamin content has been diminished. If the food contains botulism or other spoilage that would otherwise be noticeable by smell, irradiation would have eliminated the odor, allowing the consumer to be poisoned without warning. If the treated food is labeled at all, it will have a cheery, flowerlike, symbol rather than any meaningful words that inform consumers of the process to which their food has been exposed.1

-Representative Douglas Bosco (D-Calif)
The Congressional Record, February 4, 1987


In a concrete vault with walls twenty feet thick, in a building peppered with signs warning "Danger-Radiation Area," a door opens. Through the door, neatly boxed and stacked on a conveyer belt, come thousands of potatoes. The door silently closes and another opening-a shutter in the floor of the vault-contracts, revealing a pool of water beneath the vault. Within the pool lie rods of radioactive cobalt-60, products from the core of a nuclear reactor, or cesium-137, waste products of atomic bomb construction. Once the shutter has fully opened, these rods rise up out of the water and into the vault, exposing the potatoes to 100,000 rads of ionizing radiation. This is 2,500,000 times the dose of a typical chest X-ray. It is more than 150 times the dose lethal to humans. According to even a basic physics textbook, exposure to 10,000 rads totally destroys living tissue.

Inside the potatoes, atomic bonds are breaking apart and reorganizing. Molecules are metamorphosing, forming new alliances and becoming entirely different biological products. Further, up to one third of the vitamin C is being destroyed.

Within minutes the rods recede into the pool and the shutter closes. A second door opens, and the potatoes glide out on their conveyer belt. Now they are ready for you to eat. They will not sprout eyes. They will not soften and grow black. They can be used in commercial French fries, mashed potatoes, and prepared dinners. And you may never know the potatoes are irradiated.

This is not the beginning of a science fiction horror story. Food irradiation is happening now, across our country, in cities like Lynchburg, Virginia; Menlo Park, California; and Mulberry, Florida. It is a method of food processing that is designed to extend the shelf life of foods and kill any insects or bacteria that are infesting them. However, in addition to killing bacteria and bugs, irradiation has been shown to reduce nutritional content, produce several known carcinogens, promote the growth of some toxins and molds, and cause the formation of unique radiolytic products, (URPs). The URPs are biological "loose cannons," and their consumption has been associated with chromosomal damage, tumor development, birth defects, and a wide range of biological abnormalities. Nonetheless, the food production industry, the radiation industry, some governmental leaders, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) itself would have us believe that food irradiation is the next great hope for the world's food supply.


The idea of using radiation as a treatment for foods is anything but new. In 1916, just five years after Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for discovering and isolating radium, Swedish scientists performed the first experiments with irradiation of strawberries. By 1930, patents had been granted for food irradiation in both the United States and France. But not much happened with the actual application of the technology until after World War II, with the dawn of the "atomic age."

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower inaugurated the "Atoms for Peace" program in 1953, food irradiation was high on the military's list of priorities. The U.S. Army's Quartermaster Corps looked to irradiation as a way to provide sterile foods for the military, particularly in combat. For nearly a decade, the U.S. Department of Defense funded and supervised intensive research of food irradiation, always with an eye to eventually privatizing the technology so that "normal industrial competition would [assure] the provision of product at economically attractive prices."2 Some twenty years later it was learned that much of this government-funded research-which cost the American taxpayers about $6 million-was fraudulent or improperly conducted.

While the United States was searching for a cheap, effective way to provide unspoiled foods to its fighting men, other nations were also trying to develop food irradiation technology. The Soviet Union led the way by permitting the irradiation of potatoes (to prevent sprouting) in 1958 and the irradiation of grain (for disinfestation) in 1959. West Germany, although the first to actually employ commercial food irradiation in 1957 for the sterilization of spices used in sausage, dropped back in the race in 1958, when it banned food irradiation for use on foods consumed within its own country.

Today, approximately thirty-seven nations allow food irradiation of some kind within their borders, and a significant number of these have active facilities. (See Table 1.1.) Japan became the first country to open a successful commercial facility in 1974, when a plant in Hokkaido began irradiating potatoes. Today there are nine plants operating in Japan.

The first unsuccessful commercial food irradiation program was attempted in Canada between 1963 and 1965. The plant which turned out to be a spectacular technical and financial failure-was meant to solve Canada's "potato problem."

Table 1.1. Nations With Active Commercial Food Irradiators.

  • Country - Food Items

  • Argentina - Potatoes, strawberries, onions, and garlic.

  • Belgium - Spices, dehydrated vegetables, and deep frozen foods.

  • Brazil - Spices and dehydrated vegetables.

  • Canada - Spices and seasonings.

  • Chile - Onions, potatoes, spices, and dehydrated vegetables.

  • China - Potatoes.

  • Cuba - Information unavailable.

  • Finland - Spices.

  • France - Spices.

  • Germany - Garlic, onions, and enzyme solutions.

  • Hungary - Spices and wine cork.

  • Israel - Spices.

  • Japan - Potatoes.

  • Korea (Republic of) - Garlic powder.

  • Netherlands - Spices, frozen products, poultry, dehydrated vegetables, rice, dehydrated blood, egg powder, and packaging materials.

  • Norway Spices.

  • South Africa - Fruits, meats, onions, and potatoes.

  • Thailand - Approved for irradiation: potatoes, onions, garlic, dates, wheat, rice, fish, and chicken. (information unavailable on specific foods being irradiated.)

  • United States - Spices, wheat and wheat flour, fresh fruits and vegetables, pork, and poultry.

  • USSR (former) - Grains.

  • Yugoslavia (former) - Black pepper.

Source: Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Isotopes and Radiation, Applications of Atomic Energy for Food and Agricultural Development, Vienna, Austria: July 1986 and November 1986.

Because the harvest season in Canada lasts only three months-and potatoes can be stored for a maximum of six Canadian consumers traditionally face a four- to five-month "potato gap" in which potatoes must be imported from the United States. Irradiation would allow the Canadian potato industry to store crops for a longer time, reducing the nation's reliance on imports.

It seemed a perfect solution, and a new company, Newfield Products, Ltd., set about putting it into practice. The company planned to purchase potatoes, irradiate and store them, and then market them during the off-season. As one of the entrepreneurs involved recalls:

Prices would be predetermined, and long term contracts were anticipated. As an added benefit, the farmers would no longer need to suffer through the wild fluctuations of the potato market. Everyone would benefit.3

What the Canadian entrepreneurs had not anticipated was the double threat of industry disinterest and crop problems. The Canadian potato industry did not share Newfield's enthusiasm, so the company had to go elsewhere for funding. Then torrential rains set in just as the plant was beginning to receive potatoes. The crop came in chilled, waterlogged, and in terrible condition.

Newfield Products, Ltd., quickly learned a basic fact of food irradiation: radiation damages living cells. Instead of making the potatoes more fit for shipping and storage, irradiation accelerated decay. In the words of one member of the Newfield project:

It was demonstrated conclusively that the irradiation of even slightly damaged or diseased potatoes only worsened their condition, by increasing the incidence of rotting or by permanently increasing the sugar content beyond an acceptable level.4

Unable to use the potatoes it had bought on contract, Newfield was forced to buy potatoes on the open market at much higher prices, and subsequently went bankrupt.

Although Canada is home to the world's leading supplier of cobalt-60, the most commonly used source of energy for food irradiation, commercial food irradiation has yet to take hold. Other nations have actively rejected the technology. As noted, Germany abandoned irradiation of its own food supply in 1958.

During Germany's reunification, irradiation plants in former East Germany were shut down. Australia and Luxembourg also have bans on food irradiation.


Partial Listing of
Products Irradiated in the US*

  • Bandages

  • Bladder

  • Blankets

  • Blood agar

  • Bottles

  • Bottle corks/nipples

  • Bovine serum

  • Brushes

  • Bum ointments

  • Cataract removal instruments

  • Catheters /collars

  • Collection kits/systems

  • Containers

  • Cotton balls/swabs

  • Dialysis units

  • Disposable thermometers

  • Donor sets

  • Dressings

  • Electrodes

  • Enzymes

  • Eye ointments

  • First-aid kits

  • Forceps

  • Gloving cream

  • Goat hair

  • Infusion sets

  • Inoculating sets

  • irrigation sets

  • Iron-oxide pigment

  • Lab-animal food

  • Lubricating jelly

  • Needles

  • Oxygenators

  • Packaging film

  • Peat moss

  • Pipettes

  • Plastic labware

  • Sanitary napkins

  • Scalpel blades

  • Surgical garb

  • Syringes

  • Talcum powder

  • Tampons

  • Teflon

  • Towels

  • Tracheal suction kits

  • Transfusion sets

  • Tray kits

  • Tubing

  • Urine/colostomy bags

  • Vascular grafts

  • Water

  • Wood polymer flooring

*This list was adapted from one obtained from Neil Nielsen, president, Emergent Technologies, California.

The United States, on the other hand, began approving the irradiation of specific foods nearly three decades ago. Today, it holds the dubious distinction of leading the world in the number of approvals issued for the use of ionizing radiation on food products.

The United States has had a fairly profitable commercial irradiation industry for quite some time. At irradiation plants across the country, thousands of medical products, containers, and other goods are "safely" sterilized each day. (See the list of products irradiated in the United States on page 15, and the list of states with licensed commercial irradiation facilities on page 16.) Food irradiation, should it become popular, will provide a vast new market for the services of these companies.

In 1958, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act classified the irradiation process itself as an additive, making it necessary for food producers to submit individual petitions for permission to irradiate specific food products. Under the act, the petitioner must also provide (in the words of FDA commissioner Frank E. Young, M.D.) "proof of a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the proposed use of the additive."5

Under these provisions, the FDA issued its first approvals for irradiating food-wheat, wheat flour, and canned bacon-in 1963. The following year, it approved the use of radiation to inhibit sprouting in potatoes. Then, in 1968, the FDA did an about-face and withdrew its approval of the irradiation of bacon. Although many food-irradiation petitions had been denied in the past, this was the first instance of an approval being revoked. A more in-depth review of the research data had revealed that bacon's safety had not been sufficiently well-established.

States With Licensed Commercial Irradiation Facilities*

  • California

  • Colorado

  • Connecticut

  • Florida

  • Hawaii

  • Illinois

  • Maine

  • Maryland

  • Massachusetts

  • Nebraska

  • New Jersey

  • North Carolina

  • Ohio

  • Puerto Rico

  • South Carolina

  • South Dakota

  • Texas

  • Utah

  • Virginia

*The source of this list is Nordion International, Inc. Please note that the list does not include academic or U.S. Government facilities.

The withdrawal of the FDA approval of irradiating bacon was the beginning of a hiatus for food irradiation. No additional approvals were issued for nearly two decades. Then, in the mid-1980s, interest in food irradiation was suddenly revived when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its decision to ban ethylene dibromide (EDB), a postharvest fumigant that was used extensively to control possible infestation of vegetables and fruits (particularly citrus). Growers throughout the United States were thrown into a tailspin. After years of relying on EDB, they needed to find a new, equally effective, legal way to disinfest their crops. Throughout the agricultural industry, eyes once again turned to irradiation. And the petitions began coming in to the FDA.

In 1985, the FDA approved the use of radiation to control trichinosis in pork. This was followed in 1986 with two blanket approvals-one for the irradiation of fresh fruits and vegetables, and another for the irradiation of dehydrated herbs, teas, spices, seeds, and vegetable seasonings. In 1990, chicken joined the list of foods that can be irradiated. (See Table 1.2 for a detailed list of the foods approved for irradiation.) After nearly twenty years in relative limbo, food irradiation seemed to have gained the whole-hearted acceptance of the FDA.

The FDA achieved this remarkable change of heart by performing what it claims was an exhaustive review of the existing literature and research results on food irradiation. In reality, the FDA's task force looked at 441 studies and summarily dismissed 436 of them as scientifically invalid, basing its decision to approve food irradiation on 5 highly suspect pieces of research. (See Chapter Three.)

Now that the FDA has given its seal of approval to food irradiation, just how much irradiation is taking place? This is a good question, but it is also remarkably difficult to answer. In 1986, according to the Food Irradiation Newsletter of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), 3 million pounds of herbs and spices were treated with ionizing radiation in the United States.6

These products are undoubtedly already in the food supply. We may be eating them, albeit unwittingly, every day. Irradiation of wheat for bakery products may also be underway already. But it is difficult to determine just how much irradiation of wheat (or, for that matter, of fruits, vegetables, etc.) is actually going on in the United States.

The people within the irradiation industry are very tightlipped about their activities, and the FDA does not require them to disclose such information for the public record. Indeed, many aspects of the FDA's food irradiation policy make it virtually impossible for the consumer to find out just how much of the food supply is being irradiated, or to know where these irradiated foods are being used.

At this point, the FDA has predicted that 10 percent-and possibly as much as 40 percent-of our total diet will be irradiated in the near future. In the United States and abroad, food irradiation has already become a major growth industry. If the FDA's predictions come true, it will soon be a multibillion-dollar one.

Table 1.2. Foods Approved for Irradiation in the US

  • Date Approved Food(s) Purpose(s) Maximum Dose

  • August 21, 1963 Wheat, wheat flour To control Insects. 20,000-50,000 rads

  • November 1, 1965 Potatoes (white). To extend shelf life (prevent sprouting). 500-15,000 rads

  • July 5,1983 Spices, teas,seeds, dried vegetable seasonings. To kill insects and microorgan isms. 3,000,000 rads

  • June 10, 1985 Dried or dehydrated enzymes. To kill or control insects and microorganisms. 1,000,000 rads

  • July 22, 1985 Fresh pork. To kill or control the parasite that causes trichinosis. 100,000 rads

  • April 18,1986 Fresh fruits and vegetables. To delay ripening and control insects. 100,000 rads

  • April 18, 1986 Dried or dehydrated aromatic vegetable products. To decontaminate. 3,000,000 rads

  • May 2,1990 Poultry. To control illness-causing microorganisms. 300,000 rads

Source; Adapted from FDA Consumer, July-August 1986 and November 1990.



Not everyone shares the FDA's apparently enthusiastic support of food irradiation. From almost the moment the government began its investigations into food irradiation, an array of scientists, economists, and consumer activists have stepped forward to protest its use. These individuals and groups point to an abundance of scientific studies that cast doubts on the safety of irradiated food. They question the security of the technology, the adequacy of regulatory rulings, and the economic validity of food irradiation. And their voices are growing stronger.

The first organized consumer protest letter was sent to the FDA in 1966 by the Committee to End Radiological Hazards. The letter, prompted by the then recently published research findings of Cornell University scientists, was eloquent in its call for a more considered approach to the issue of food irradiation. Decrying the lack of information being made available to the public, and the hastiness with which the United States seemed to be embracing this risky technology, Committee Secretary Mary Hays Weik wrote the following to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Division, the forerunner of today's FDA:

Dear Dr. Goddard,

You have of course seen the enclosed announcement of recent findings by Cornell University scientists which indicate that irradiation of food ... may have most disastrous effects on the sugar it contains. Since sugar in some form occurs in most foods, this of course represents a most important development in this field-which will make necessary drastic revisions of plans in this and many other countries for food irradiation.

As an official sworn to protect tile health and safety of Our citizens, we are sure you must be vitally interested in this development. We have been somewhat surprised to hear no announcement coming from your office concerning this discovery, since we presumed in light of these tests the Food and Drug Division would at once rescind the ill-advised and hasty permission issued by your predecessor in 1963-which approved the irradiation of wheat and flour for export and allowed canned irradiated bacon to be issued to U.S. Army canteens-unfortunately with no warning on container or can to those who would consume the food concerned.... That many other governments beside our own are engaged in this hazardous enterprise, at the expense of their own citizens' health, is no argument in its favor, but only evidence of a world-wide disregard for human safety and the genetic future of our race. We trust this announcement of Cornell University findings will stir the conscience of those who read it and bring a halt to such irresponsible experiments on the food we must all consume.7

To paraphrase Bob Dylan: Did anyone hear the words of Mary Hays Weik? Did anyone even care? Within the halls of the FDA, apparently not. But the Committee to End Radiological Hazards has since been joined by thousands of other individuals who are alarmed and appalled by the way in which food irradiation is being handled. Here are some examples of what protestors are doing:

At the same time, reputable scientists, publishing in respected scientific journals, have been steadily documenting the potential hazards of eating irradiated foods. In experiments using everything from isolated plant cells to healthy adult humans, researchers have found an array of alarming biological effects when even a portion of the total diet is irradiated. In 1979, a scientist with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences reviewed the existing food irradiation literature to document the potential biological effects of eating irradiated foods.11 He reviewed hundreds of studies, some of which had several outcomes, and found 7,191 neutral effects, 185 beneficial effects, and 1,414 negative effects. The negative effects included chromosomal changes, organ damage, tumors, morbidity (illness), and premature mortality (death). The long-term consequences of some of these (such as chromosomal changes) and their interrelationship with other health risks (malnutrition, carcinogens, environmental toxins, etc.) have not even begun to be examined.

In addition to the controversy centered on the health risks of irradiated foods, there is the critical question of regulation. (See Chapter Six.) In the United States, irradiated foods need to be labeled only when they are in their original form, not when they are part of another processed food. Methods for enforcing these labeling requirements have not been developed.

There is also no easy way to chemically determine if a food has been irradiated or, when it has, to verify the dose used. Under existing rules and regulations, there are absolutely no safeguards to insure that food companies maintain proper food handling procedures, use legal radiation doses, or maintain safety standards.

The FDA's cavalier attitude towards such regulatory and enforcement issues is a source of critical concern to many health experts. As Samuel Epstein, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Illinois Medical Center and professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the university, and John Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., of the Donner Laboratory of Medical Physics and professor Emeritus of the University of California at Berkeley, said in a letter to Science, "Public policy on the nation's food must not be based on reckless gambles and denial of the public's right to basic free choice."12 And as Tony Webb, Tim Lang, and Kathleen Tucker note in their book, Food Irradiation: Who Wants It?:

If you were trying to sell irradiated food and vegetables and your customers wouldn't buy it, would you label it, knowing that no one could prove it was irradiated? Or, to put it another way, if irradiation were widely accepted and welcomed by consumers, what would stop you from claiming that the food you were selling had been irradiated? The whole system is wide open to counterfeiting based on the way irradiated foods may appear fresh longer.13

For its many opponents, food irradiation seems to be yet another example of greed and scientific ignorance that is gravely endangering public welfare.


The FDA, in defending itself against these complaints, is quick to point to the fact that irradiated food is not radioactive thereby implying that it is perfectly safe to eat. No one questions the fact that irradiated food is, indeed, not radioactive. But that fact alone is in no way an assurance of the food's safety.

As we shall see in the next chapter, irradiated food is not radioactive, but radiomimetic, or radiation imitating. One receives an indirect exposure to between thousands and millions of rads with every bite of irradiated food. And it is these radiomimetic effects that should concern us.

Feeding studies of irradiated foods have found children who developed blood abnormalities associated with leukemia, mice whose hearts swelled to three times the normal size and burst open, and flies whose offspring were born visibly mutated or dead. In study after study, the consumption of irradiated food has been associated with varying degrees of physical and biochemical abnormalities.

The FDA has chosen to disregard these and other studies showing adverse effects, instead assuring us that the treatment is safe. Indeed, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Otis Bowen has called food irradiation "a new technology that can produce benefits to consumers."14 His predecessor, Margaret Heckler, went so far as to state that "thirty years of research have proven this process to be safe."15

The research to which Heckler referred includes six years of fraudulent research (carried out during the early days of the Army's food irradiation program), several studies published in obscure journals, research that was funded and conducted by organizations devoted to promoting the radiation industry, and numerous studies that actually support the view that irradiated food is potentially dangerous! Given the astonishingly shaky scientific ground on which the FDA has built its pro-irradiation argument, one cannot help but concur with Dr. Epstein, who has likened eating irradiated food to asking someone to play Russian roulette without telling him that there's a bullet in the gun. 16

Chapter 1 References

  1. Smith, J: Food Irradiation. The Maine Nurse 1987; 73: 5.

  2. Masefield, J and Dietz, GR: Food irradiation: The evaluation of commercialization opportunities. CRC Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 1983; 19(3): 259-272. (265)

  3. Ibid.: 266.

  4. Ibid.: 267.

  5. Young, FE: Statement before the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment of the Committee on Energy and Commerce (House of Representatives) on House Resolution 956-June 19, 1987. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1988: 26.

  6. Swientak, R: Food irradiation update. Food Processing June 1985: 86.

  7. Weik, MH: Letter to Commissioner Goddard of the Food and Drug Division. National Health Federation Bulletin April 1966: 1417.

  8. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration: Irradiation in the production, processing, and handling of food: Final Rule. Federal Register April 18,1986 (21 CFR Part 179-Part III); 51(75): 13,377.

  9. Holden, S: No irradiation yet. Nature February 11, 1988; 331: 469.

  10. Belsie, L: Food irradiation at a crossroads. The Christian Science Monitor September 24, 1990.

  11. Webb, T, Lang, T, and Tucker, K: Food Irradiation: Who Wants It? Thorson Publishers, Inc., Rochester, Vermont, 1987: 34.

  12. Epstein, S and Gofman, J: Irradiation of foods. Science 1984; 223: 1354.

  13. Webb, T, Lang, T, and Tucker, K: op cit: 5.

  14. Press release by Department of Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration, April 15, 1986:1.

  15. Soiffer B: Bay plant may radiate food. San Francisco Chronicle June 1, 1985.

  16. Epstein, S: Personal communication, September 1992.

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